Sweatshops at Sea

Tightening U.S. seafood regulations could improve human rights in Mexico

| September-October 2010

It was a little after eight in the evening, and the sun was just beginning to set over the Gulf of California. Our small motorboat, known here in Santa Rosalia, Mexico, as a panga, sped out over the shimmering water. The breezy sea air felt good and clean after the heat of the day, and soon Delmar, the 26-year-old squid fisherman who had agreed to take us out for his night’s work, was cracking open cans of Tecate.

When we reached Delmar’s fishing spot, he cut the engine and flipped on a tiny lightbulb duct-taped to a pole on the middle bench of the panga. Floating all around us were dozens of other pangas, and as night fell, the dots of light twinkled like a hundred fallen stars. It was beautiful and peaceful.

Then we began to fish.

Delmar unraveled a glow-in-the-dark plastic tube fitted with sharp metal hooks that was attached to a thousand feet of clear fishing line. He tossed it overboard, wrapping the other end around a piece of scrap wood. When the line went tight after a few minutes, he began to pull, bare hand over bare hand, hauling the line back up through hundreds of feet of water. Seconds later, a 40-pound Humboldt squid splashed up from the depths with an enormous spray of salt water and sticky black ink. From tentacles to tail, it was almost as long as the panga was wide.



In one fluid movement, Delmar yanked the squid out of the water, slapped it down, grabbed a rusty machete, and chopped off its head. Four hours later, the piles of red squid bodies and heads had grown so large that we had to balance with our feet braced awkwardly against the slick benches. When we had to move around the boat, we’d slip on spare eyeballs and black slime, and occasionally a spastic tentacle would wrap itself around the odd ankle. To make matters even worse, there were no life vests, radios, or emergency lights on board Delmar’s panga.

It’s no wonder that, every season, at least two or three fishermen like Delmar die at sea.